There seems to be an unwritten rule in American cinema that adults don't go for original fairy tales. Fantasy, sci-fi, sure -- but it's a rare entry that shoots for the it-could-happen-to-you weirdness of a classic Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen story in anything other than a parallel universe. Revolution on a galactic scale we can accept. Genetic discrimination we can accept. But when it comes to events and demands with no obvious logical progression -- why does Cinderella have to leave the ball at midnight or a princess have to be able to feel a pea through dozens of mattresses? -- Hollywood assumes that the attraction just isn't there.
Fortunately, no such restriction constrains Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. His Gabbeh, ostensibly about the lives of nomadic rug-making tribesmen in southeastern Iran, weaves a puzzling and visually beautiful love story with a simple premise: A young woman cannot wed her lover until her father's conditions are met. The story's framework adds several levels of complexity to the film -- and the details add the magic.
Makhmalbaf makes it clear in the first five minutes of the movie that this is no ordinary story. As the film begins, an old couple is at a stream near their cottage, washing the family gabbeh (rug), which is woven in shades of blue much like those of the woman's clothing and which depicts a young man and woman riding on a white horse. The woman (Roghieh Moharami) muses about the origin of the girl shown on the rug -- which seems odd at first, since the implication is that she wove the rug herself -- and a moment later, a girl, dressed in the same tones of blue as the old woman, appears on the rug. Asked her name, she replies, "Gabbeh." As the movie progresses, Makhmalbaf leaves the viewer to wonder: Is the girl the spirit of the rug? A vision of the old woman as a younger girl? Are the events Gabbeh describes taking place now or in the past? Just whose story is being told?
These questions take a back seat to the story-within-a-story that Gabbeh (Shaghayegh Djodat) begins to relate. The tale quickly departs into the fantastic as she describes the man she is determined to marry, a black-clad rider on a white horse who follows her family from a distance and calls to her with the voice of a wolf. Their love is thwarted by Gabbeh's rifle-wielding father (whom she calls "Weave of the wool"), who insists that the marriage not take place until Gabbeh's uncle (Abbas Sayahi) returns to take her grandmother to town -- but the grandmother dies before that requirement can be fulfilled. Meanwhile, we learn that Gabbeh's uncle is also far from normal: In a particularly vibrant scene, he teaches a group of schoolchildren about colors by magically pulling them from the grass, the wildflowers and even the sun and clouds that surround them.
The scenes of Gabbeh's story intertwine with her narration. As she tells her story to the couple, the old man (Hossein Moharami) becomes infatuated with her, proclaiming his love in poetry. As the tale progresses, his cries become more and more desperate, an almost wolflike howl. Coincidence? Makhmalbaf doesn't explain. The audience is left to think for itself, to rekindle the sense of wonder that once came from listening to a brand-new story. And once the audience has been suitably immersed in the brilliant setting and mystical characters, the movie takes on a surreal sense of logic. Somehow it seems reasonable for Gabbeh's uncle to look for a wife singing like a canary by the side of a stream, or for her mother to have an extremely long pregnancy after Gabbeh's father decides that Gabbeh's wedding must wait until after her mother gives birth.
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Throughout the film, the story seems overshadowed by the landscape in which it takes place, from the fields of wildflowers we see harvested for dyes to the barren, windswept mountains that hold both love and tragedy. They mirror the story's emotional build, to the point that when Gabbeh and her fellow weavers call out, "Life is color! -- Love is color! -- Love is pain!", the litany seems more a rallying cry for the setting than for Gabbeh's trials.
Thus distracted, it's easy to overlook the metaphor central to Makhmalbaf's film. Gabbeh is held prisoner by her culture in much the way that Islamic fundamentalism holds modern Iranian women prisoners; the bright colors that Gabbeh and her people live in and around come as vivid reminders of the simple freedoms denied their city counterparts. But even with this underlying idea, the movie does not seem nearly so political as many of Makhmalbaf's earlier works. It can be enjoyed simply as a fantastic journey, either to a world caught out of time, or to one that's always been timeless.
Directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf. With Shaghayegh Djodat, Abbas Sayahi, Hossein Moharami and Roghieh Moharami.